Translation Battles Ensue Over Camus in South Korea

In Discussion by Dennis Abrams

Two publishers in South Korea are arguing over who is responsible for poor translations of Camus’ The Stranger.

By Dennis Abrams

Albert Camus

Mr. Camus would not be amused by the mistranslation of “The Stranger” in Korea. Or perhaps he would be? Isn’t translation, at its heart, an existential question after all?

The Korean Herald reports that, “Recently, a debate rose in the literary world over the Korean translation of the novel The Stranger by French writer Albert Camus.”

The debate began with the claim by the publishing company Saeum that the original Korean translation was riddled with translation errors. The publisher even said that “The Stranger we’ve read so far is not Camus’ original.”

Saeum has released a new translation of The Stranger, which has sold close to 5,000 copies in just two weeks. The book currently is ranked ninth on Kyobo Book’s best-seller list for novels.

The publisher made sentence-to-sentence comparisons between its translation and the original (as well as between the original French version and different English translation) to bolster its claim that the original version had a grand total of fifty eight translation errors.

Minumsa, the publisher of the original Korean version, argued that the first translation was not wrong, but merely a different interpretation.

“The first Korean version of The Stranger is misunderstood as being wrong. A wrong translation is saying 3 o’clock instead of 4 o’clock. The first version just uses different expressions,” said an official from the publisher, who asked to remain anonymous.

In a local news report, French-Korean translator Jeong Hye-yong said that, at least in part, the difference in translation is doe to the 20-year period between the first translation and the new one.

“There are different expressions that work for different generations, Jeong said.

But in fact, as the article points out, controversy in Korea over translations is nothing new.

Kim Wook-dong, a scholar of American literature and translator of The Great Gatsby, is reported to have said that there were 24 different Korean versions of the novel, and some of them suffered from translation errors as well as significant differences in meaning. One of them, a translation by best-selling author Kim Young-ha, was criticized as being closer to an “adaptation” than a true translation.

The translated version of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs opened up a similar debate when it was released in 2011. Translator Lee Deok-ha wrote about sentences he thought were translation errors in the Korean version. But that book’s translator, Ahn Jin-hwan, argued back that he believes “translation that delivers contextual meaning is better than word-for-word translation.”

The Herald reported that that argument led Lee to have a “translation battle” with another translator with the surname of Noh, who made the argument that “word-for-word translation is impossible.” To prove their points, Lee and Noh each uploaded one page of a translation of How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It” online and asked readers to judge the best.

In response, French-Korean translator Jeong told the paper, “Translation debates shed light on the importance of translation. It’s interesting to observe them because they let readers understand that translation is just another piece of original writing.”

Did using multiple editions of the work — including English and Korean editions of The Stranger — lead to more errors? Let us know what you think in the comments.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.